At the start of a new week, Pat Fitzgerald challenged his team to respond. It wasn't going to be easy, not after a heartbreaking loss to Michigan.
A productive week of practice had Northwestern prepared for a road test against Michigan State. Surely enough, the Wildcats encountered the same scenario as one week prior; leading by three points and needing a stop. NU showed what it's made of, holding off the Spartans for a 23-20 score.
"It's a great team win, the way we bounced back," said Fitzgerald. "To come up here on the road and make the plays that winners make, it was a great team win."
The Wildcats broke up four Andrew Maxwell passes on Michigan State's final drive. On fourth-and-10, safety Jared Carpenter forced out the football from the hands of Dion Sims. One week after allowing a Michigan comeback, NU shut the door.
"To see the way the program responded is a terrific credit to our players," offered Fitzgerald.
Northwestern jumped ahead in a defensive battle with quarterback Kain Colter connecting with superback Tim Riley for a six-yard touchdown. Maxwell and the Spartans responded in the fourth quarter with a strike to receiver Tony Lippett to tie the game.
A Jeff Budzien 27-yard field goal gave Northwestern a fourth-quarter lead—meaning it has led in the fourth quarter each game this season.
When crunch time came around, and the Wildcats needing to hold their lead, they weren't focused on past failures.
"You've got to focus on the now and keep everyone on the same page," said senior linebacker David Nwabuisi. "Keep everyone's confidence up, tell them to read their keys and make plays."
The contest started like a baseball game, with Northwestern owning a 6-5 halftime lead. In The Opening minute of the second half, the Wildcats found the end zone first. Safety Ibraheim Campbell took down Maxwell, then Nwabuisi, a fifth-year senior, record his first career interception return for a touchdown.
"It just kind of fell into my lap," said Nwabuisi of the errant pass. "I saw big old [MSU] linemen coming my way. I happened to weave through. My teammates were throwing great blocks for me. I just scored."
The challenge was even greater when Northwestern lost its starting quarterback, Colter, and dynamic running back Venric Mark. The Wildcats rode their reliable backup quarterback, Trevor Siemian, who helped pace the offense in the fourth quarter.
"Any opportunity I can get on the field, that's good," said Siemian. "If that's my role right now or whatever my role is, I'm just trying to embrace that."
It seemed as if the world had ended after the Wildcats' overtime loss to Michigan. Players and coaches received angry, harassing messages from frustrated fans, and the team was eliminated from Big Ten championship contention.
Fitzgerald points to his team's resiliency, which stems from the recruiting process. They maintain a belief in each other and their plan.
"They have to buy into it," said Fitzgerald. "They have to own it. They have to manage it on a day-by-day basis."
Northwestern jockeyed itself into stronger position for the Big Ten bowl pecking order, with a trip to the Gator Bowl or Outback Bowl looking likely. The regular season concludes at Ryan Field with rival Illinois. The win in East Lansing has the Cats riding high.
"It's a big momentum swing for us," said superback Dan Vitale. "We had a little crush last week. With the win this week, we're hoping to keep it going and get two more wins."